Like it or not, Kenneth Branagh’s well-known brand of easy optimism, kindness, and generosity that characterised all of his Shakespearean adaptations (yes, even his Henry V and Hamlet) seems a thing of the past now. After Julie Taymor’s melancholy Tempest (2010), Ralph Fiennes’s butch, angry Coriolanus (2011), and the dolorous histories of The Hollow Crown (BBC, 2012) comes a positively harrowing Macbeth from Justin Kurzel, the director of Snowtown, confirming that on screen, at least, moody, depressing Shakespeare is the order of the day in the teenage years of the 21st century. (Note that the second—darker, bloodier—season of The Hollow Crown, dealing with the Wars of the Roses, is scheduled for next year). Given the star power promoting this particular adaptation, the praise at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and the enduring popularity of the play itself, it may seem strange to ask if this film is any good. Nevertheless, I find myself struggling to come up with a simple answer. This is because in the end there are two very different things at stake here: first, is this film a good piece of cinema? And second, is it a good Shakespeare? Such films as Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964), Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999), or, indeed, The Hollow Crown histories stand as proofs that the two are not in fact mutually exclusive. Will Kurzel’s Macbeth join their ranks? I have my doubts.
To begin with my first question: how well does this adaptation work as a cinematic undertaking? The answer is, well enough. It’s bold, smooth, and visually arresting. The story, a taut, cynical thriller about a warrior turned tyrant, is as gripping here as it has always been, the film itself adding little to it — if sometimes cutting quite a bit. Perhaps in an effort to offer cinematic images that would match the powerful poetry of the play, the film occasionally goes beyond the customary screen realism to toy with expressionist compositions, fades to white, extreme slow motion, and erratic editing. While not particularly inspired, these moments are not too distracting either, the action and emotion remaining perfectly clear at all times. And what is clear above all is that this Macbeth is supposed to be an incredibly depressing affair. ‘Cold’, ‘brutal’, and ‘miserable’ must have been universal cues for the designers and actors alike. No one ever laughs, hardly anyone ventures a smile here. All men on screen sport the I-will-probably-be-dead-by-tomorrow expression and, this being Macbeth, most of them indeed will. The women are silent and bitter, their children endlessly victimized. Kurzel’s medieval Scotland is a bleak, barbaric world where ruthlessness is the key to survival — so it’s probably quite an accurate depiction of the actual historical moment. Shakespeare himself might have had a slightly different mental image of his play-world, as the pivotal act of regicide is described by virtually everybody in the play as an assault on the divine order of the universe itself, which in Kurzel’s film emphasizing the dog-eat-dog politics of warring Scottish clans translates into rather hysterical and improbable outbursts of moral outrage.
Such oddities aside, the vividness and consistency of Kurzel’s vision is one of the film’s greatest strengths. At his best, Kurzel shows only just enough to paint an evocative image of Macbeth’s doomed world: the common misery of the poor, the terrified court, the nameless soldiers trudging on. There are moments in Kurzel’s film that put me in mind of Grigori Kozintsev’s two Shakespearean adaptations, Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971). There, Kozintsev found room for the crowds and masses and found their role in the story. Both of his tragedies were projected on a grand scale, sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed, the displaced, the suffering. His Lear in particular used images of tramps and beggars roaming desolate landscapes to great effect. Kurzel seems to share some of Kozintsev’s sensibilities, even if he is not quite as interested in examining the fate of the society at times of political upheaval as the Soviet director was. And he, too, knows that while having horses and armies and fire is grand, the real advantage of pointing a camera at Shakespeare is that you can look closely into someone’s eyes. Yes, I thought every now and then as I was watching the film, this is how Kozintsev might have approached this play — and that I take to be a very high praise indeed.
The danger that Kurzel courted was, of course, the law of diminishing returns. There is only so much relentless, unrelieved misery, so much gore, so much desolation that can be put on screen before it becomes tiring, even somewhat ridiculous, and I’m afraid that for me the tedium was definitely there. Even though Macbeth is probably Shakespeare’s darkest, scariest, most pessimistic play, Shakespeare was not a brooding Scandinavian author obsessing over pain and death. That Kurzel’s film would sometimes have the viewer think so is an indication of how much the original text has been tampered with — which brings me to my second point. Is this Macbeth a good Shakespeare? Not particularly, I’m afraid, and the reason might be very simple: the filmmakers seem to have badly underestimated the text. It’s not just a matter of cutting unwanted scenes (Porter, Hecate, Lady Macduff with her son, Young Siward, etc.) and clumsy, often needless tinkering with the lines (the credited screenwriters are Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso). The responsibility lies also with the director and the actors, who made me think that what exactly the characters were saying was here only of secondary importance.
Here is what I think went wrong: anxious about adapting what is probably one of the most difficult texts in the Shakespeare canon, the creators decided to emphasise the psychological dimension whenever possible and to rely on their conception of the characters to convey, sometimes even force, meaning. Thus Macbeth was diagnosed with PTSD — just like Fiennes’s Coriolanus a few years back — and he and Lady Macbeth were loaded with the trauma of having just buried their only child (the interpolated opening scene of the film), an interpretive manoeuvre so common these days that it might soon become the most annoying cliché in modern Shakespeare productions since Hamlet’s Oedipus complex. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are both excellent at portraying this hurting couple, but the acute sense of their pain and gradual mental breakdown kept overriding my concern for the meaning of the actual words they were speaking. I could not help but suspect that someone actually believed that as long as I got the gist (‘ah, all right, so this is where Macbeth goes mad’), it didn’t matter all that much that I failed to follow the verse. No one should be allowed to get away with believing such nonsense. The text, especially in Shakespeare’s later plays, is everything. It can be complex and convoluted, sometimes insanely so, but that’s often because it’s bursting with meaning, with metaphors, puns, antitheses, echoes, paradoxes, and this must all be conveyed. If the actors lose this, they lose all that really matters.
The verses of Macbeth do not merely speak of unbearable terrors, of collapsing boundaries between the real and the unreal, the living and the dead, the moral and the amoral universe, they themselves collapse those boundaries, they themselves are unbearable terrors. If I am to appreciate the depths of this play, I need to know exactly what the actors are saying. Watching two desperate, isolated people mumbling, droning, and hissing Shakespeare’s words at each other won’t do the trick. It is possible that Kurzel and his cast simply wanted to avoid theatrics — they certainly excised any scene that would compromise the deadly seriousness of the main plot, making Shakespeare sound much dourer than he actually was. The advantage of theatricality, however, is that it can help the viewer get in. The best actors are never afraid to pause, turn head, raise voice, or make a gesture for some extra emphasis in Shakespeare. Frustratingly, only the famous soundbites tend to get such treatment here, almost as if trying to alert the viewers: here is one bit that you may recognise. The rest is sometimes bordering on tired monotony. The supporting actors are not allowed any significant liberties with their parts, either, and as they seem to have been encouraged not to stand out (most of them even made to look like one another, what with all those beards and frowns), there isn’t much to be said about particular supporting performances, despite some well-known names in the cast. To be sure, Sean Harris is a magnetic presence throughout as a seething, brutalized Macduff, and David Thewlis has an air of quiet menace about him as a not-so-saintly king Duncan, but neither is ever given enough room to steal a scene.
Many older productions of Macbeth now available on DVD hammer home just how much more complex the play can be if the production retains its odd ‘corner’ scenes and allows supporting actors to make the most of them: the appearance of the creepy Porter, the grotesque banter of the three Witches, Lady Macduff’s bitter, nerve-racking reflections before the attack, Macduff’s unsettling interview with Malcolm in England (none of these made it here). Kurzel kept his focus firmly on his star leads and while he managed to make the story suitably raw and the central couple’s fall appropriately sickening, he also sacrificed a great deal of subtlety. Yes, his film boasts a stunning cinematography and production values that make even Roman Polanski’s much admired Macbeth of 1970 pale in comparison. But those in search of nuanced Shakespearean performances rather than the grim visual poetry of slowmo gore and misty Scottish panoramas would do better to check out some of the more stagey productions of recent past. There are some excellent options: Greg Doran’s wild, vaguely modern RSC Macbeth with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter starring as the traumatized couple (2001) maps very much the same emotional territory as Kurzel’s film, with a more confident ensemble backup. Rupert Goold’s quirky, cheap-shock horror production of 2010 boasts Patrick Stewart’s powerful take on the Scottish tyrant reimagined as an ageing Stalinist dictator, with Kate Fleetwood as a chilling Lady M. And, as strange as it may sound, the shabby old masterpiece of a production directed by Trevor Nunn and featuring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench (and Roger Rees, Bob Peck, John Woodvine, Ian McDiarmid…), recorded in a studio in 1979, still holds its own.
It was to Nunn’s minimalist, claustrophobic, supremely theatrical take on the play that I wanted to return to most after watching Kurzel’s ambitious cinematic adaptation. This is perhaps because, unlike the present offering, Nunn’s Macbeth is confident that as long as it delivers a good Shakespeare, it will make for a good film also, no matter how cheap the production values. Kurzel’s film sometimes seems to be banking on reversing the logic, coaxing Shakespeare out of a hauntingly beautiful film. And it makes me still more confident that Nunn’s approach is far more likely to succeed.